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Your Autistic Child and Strangers: Unique Lessons for Children with ASD

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Feb 23, 2022

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Earlier this month, we discussed teaching your children about strangers. When it comes to children with autism, however, you may need to adjust how you teach your child and what you say. Older children with autism are typically anxious and fearful, but at least one study has shown that toddlers and young children with autism actually demonstrate less of a fear response than their neurotypical peers. The researchers leading the study theorize that this may be why toddlers and young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) so readily wander towards roads or bodies of water.  

Start with Defining Who a Stranger Is  

Children with ASD are less likely to pick up on the body language or social cues that would alarm a neurotypical child. They often fail to pick up on the types of contextual logic or perception that lie in the details of an encounter, instead taking in the entire scene without processing the details – something known as “gestalt processing”.  

Gestalt Processing: Perception of the entire scene as a single entity, with all details perceived but not processed. Autistic children are more likely to perceive everything around them with no filtration or selection; for example, being unable to focus on a single voice because the voice is part of all sounds they are hearing. 

Because children with autism may struggle to understand that not all adults are the same, you can use numbers or a circle/venn diagram system to help them understand the levels of connection someone may have with them.  

Have them work through a system such as this with you, placing themselves, family, close friends, and other adults they may meet into the appropriate circle.

It can be helpful to print out images of people in each category, and practice matching them to the correct number or circle. This exercise is beneficial for neurotypical children, too  

levels program for autism

Level 1: Myself – It helps to establish a baseline of “self” and that relationships are relative to that baseline. The other circles/levels of relationship are all related to the child, not to anyone else, and for some children with ASD it can be helpful or necessary to establish that baseline.  

Level 2: My immediate family – The people that live with the child, such as parents and siblings, would fall into this category.  

Level 3: Close friends, family – The child’s friends, teachers, grandparents and similar relatives that are interacted with on a regular or daily basis.  

Level 4: Acquaintances – People the child will interact within a friendly capacity but may not see often. Parents of friends or friendly neighbors are good examples.  

Level 5: Professionals/Community Helpers – People that interact with the child in a professional capacity, such as the mailman or checkout person at the grocery store. This can also be where you place policemen, firemen, and similar emergency service providers that the child can be taught to seek out if they get lost.  

Level 6: Strangers – These are people the child has never met before and would have no reason to talk to them or interact. This includes other people at the grocery store or restaurant, or people walking by on the street.  

Define Rules for Each Level of Familiarity  

Be sure to spend some time with your child assigning numbers to the various people they interact with, as well as those who would fall into the “stranger” category. While neurotypical children can generally be given broad sets of rules for interacting with different familiarity levels, a child with autism is likely to need a highly specific set of rules and reactions that are appropriate.  

Some rules that you will likely want to teach your child include:  

Car rides – Only get in the car with level 2 or 3, and level 4 or 5 only if there’s a good reason or a parent said so. You may want to give your child a clear set of rules: your ASD child may take things extremely literally, so defining that they should only get in the car with someone who is level 4 or 5 if a level 2 person said it’s okay can be necessary.  

Touching Them – Children should have autonomy over their bodies, but it may be necessary for you or a doctor to see their private parts. Be very clear about what situations are appropriate for someone to ask to see them (a doctor, or if the child needs help with the bathroom or feeling hurt), and what’s not appropriate and should be shared with their parent or level 2 adult.  

Touching Others – Just like your child should learn that they should only be touched with their consent, it’s important to teach them to respect the personal space of others. Some relationship levels may be more okay with being hugged or touched, such as level 2 or 3, but others would probably prefer their space respected, such as levels 4 and 5, while a stranger shouldn’t be touched at all.  

Letting People into the House – Similar to setting boundaries for car rides, be very clear about who your child should allow into the house, or even open the door for. A level 2 should be allowed in immediately, but maybe a level 3 or 4 should only be let in if a level 2 already gave permission. Remember to be very explicit!  

Teach Tricks and Role Play 

Similar to techniques that you would use for a neurotypical child, talk your child with autism through various scenarios they should know how to respond to. Does your area have unique situations or risks that you should prepare your child for, such as nearby lakes, ponds, or a nearby highway?  

You should adapt the tricks recommended in our Acting and Reacting Against Strangers blog for your child, being sure to phrase things with the knowledge that your child is more likely to take them literally. In the scenarios listed here, for example, you’ll probably want to adapt the “it’s okay to be rude” lesson by saying “it’s okay to be rude to a Level 4 or higher”, or “it’s not rude to say ‘no thank you’ and walk away”.  

Be Clear About What to Do If They Get Lost 

Once you’ve been able to clearly teach your child about relationships between themselves and others, you should be able to build on that for what they should do if they’re lost 

Make sure your child knows important details, such as parent names, phone numbers, and their home address. Use your relationship lessons to also teach them who’s safe to ask for help, and flashcards or pictures can help teach them to look for police officers or other people in uniform for help.  

You can also teach them to look for another parent for help, such as a mom with other small children and items like a stroller.  

It’s Not a One-Time Lesson  

With all children, as they grow up, you’ll need to revisit lessons learned and how the rules that applied when a child was younger may need to be adjusted as they get older. You know your child best, and by treating the lessons on strangers and their dangers as an ongoing discussion rather than a one-off talk, you’ll help them be aware and prepared if a potentially dangerous situation arises.  

You can also give yourself peace of mind by utilizing the Q5id Guardian app as backup if your child gets lost. Teach them a “safe word” that means someone has been sent by you to help – this can be helpful if you have to ask store employees to help you search, or you can include it in the Guardian alert you issue.  

What teachings and lessons have worked well for your family when it comes to teaching your children about stranger danger? Share your lessons learned with us on Facebook or Instagram – and don’t forget to pin this post for later.